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Obeying French Courts, Twitter Hands Over Identities of Users Who Employed Anti-Semitic Hashtag

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, July 22 2013

Screenshot of a #UnBonJuif tweet by @mafiacorsica

On July 12, Twitter handed over to the French authorities the data necessary for identifying the authors of anti-Semitic tweets that were accompanied by the hashtag #UnBonJuif (#AGoodJew). The decision officially ends a lengthy legal battle brought by France's Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) and several anti-racism groups against Twitter. The legal dispute pitted hate speech laws against freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet. Hate speech laws triumphed, but the outcome has reignited public debate on the subject of rights and responsibilities of both Internet users and companies.

In a joint statement, Twitter and the UEJF said:

Further to discussions between the Parties and in response to a valid legal request, Twitter has provided the prosecutor of Paris, Presse et Libertés Publiques section of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance, with data that may enable the identification of certain users that the Vice-Prosecutor believes have violated French law.

The authors of the statement went on to add that Twitter will work with UEJF “to fight racism and anti-Semitism,” and “to improve the accessibility of the procedure for notifications of illicit tweets.”

Critics of Twitter's capitulation say the company is “bending” or “giving way” to the French government. The New York Times covered the story under the headline “Twitter Yields to Pressure in Hate Case in France.”

“There was more fighting Twitter could have done and chose not to,” Christopher Wolf, a lawyer who represents technology companies, told the Times. He further explained: “It is an episode that gives me some pause over the potential breadth of jurisdiction by a European government over a U.S. Internet company.”

Before a French judge ordered Twitter to hand over the users' identities in January (a decision that was upheld in June), Guy Birenbaum, who comments on Internet issues for Europe 1 radio, called the lawsuit unrealistic.

"Of course people say atrocious things on Twitter," Birenbaum told NPR. "But the question is not to keep them from talking. The real issue is, technically, how can you tell the difference between real racists and fascists, and those simply talking or joking about the racist tweets? No machine can do this."

The President of UEJF, Jonathan Hayoun, called the outcome "a great victory in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism" and "a big step in the fight against the feeling of impunity on the Internet."

"This agreement is a reminder that you cannot do anything you want on the Internet. Twitter will no longer be a conduit for racists and anti-Semites where their anonymity will be protected," Hayoun added.

“I believe this case best encapsulates the debate (in Europe) between freedom of expression versus incitement to hatred, as well as the varying degrees of protection from hate speech,” Talia Naamat, a legal researcher at the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry in Jerusalem, told JNS.org.

In his article “Free Speech on the Internet: Silicon Valley is Making the Rules, Jeffrey Rosen wrote:

The company that has moved the furthest toward the American free-speech ideal is Twitter, which has explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility. Unlike Google and Facebook, it doesn’t ban hate speech at all; instead, it prohibits only “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Last year, after the French government objected to the hash tag “#unbonjuif”—intended to inspire hateful riffs on the theme “a good Jew ...”—Twitter blocked a handful of the resulting tweets in France, but only because they violated French law. Within days, the bulk of the tweets carrying the hash tag had turned from anti-Semitic to denunciations of anti-Semitism, confirming that the Twittersphere is perfectly capable of dealing with hate speech on its own, without heavy-handed intervention.

Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee's specialist on anti-semitism and extremism, seems to agree that the self policing method can be more effective at countering hate speech. He told JNS.org that it is “more effective to have hateful speech marginalized than censored,” for example, when a public figure denounces it.

In an opinion piece on PolicyMic, “The Case for Censoring Hate Speech On the Internet,” Sean McElwee objects to the assertion that the Twittersphere can police hate speech without intervention. He points out that hate speech accomplishes two things: “it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone” and it “intimidate[s] the targeted minority.”

He elaborates:

Those who claim to “defend free speech” when they defend the right to post hate speech online, are in truth backwards. Free speech isn’t an absolute right— no right is weighed in a vacuum. The court has imposed numerous restrictions on speech. Fighting words, libel, and child pornography are all banned. Other countries merely go one step further by banning speech intended to intimidate vulnerable groups. The truth is that such speech does not democratize speech, it monopolizes speech. Women, LGBT individuals, and racial or religious minorities feel intimidated and are left out of the public sphere.

While this is (probably) not the death knell for free speech on Twitter, it might be the can of worms the social media giant really didn't want to open. Already there are outraged Twitter users wondering why #UnBonJuif has gotten so much attention, but not a word is said about #UnBonPalestinien or #UnBonMusulman.

*#AGoodPalestinian, #AGoodMuslim, #BlacksAreInferior get no comment!!! But for #AGoodJew it's a federal case!

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.